Tag Archives: Church


The Church Needs Philosophers and Philosophers Need the Church

“Who cares what Aristotle thinks about a severed hand,” retorted an exasperated philosophy student on a wintery night in a Midwestern university. My lecture screeched to a halt. As the class stared at me, enjoying the showdown, the subtext of my student’s comment was not lost on them or me: “Aristotle’s view of substance provides me with no ‘real world’ benefit, so it is useless knowledge.”

socratesI wish I could tell you my student’s comment that night was an exception to the rule. It is not. Her comment highlights a widely held misconception about the discipline of philosophy and those of us who like to think of ourselves as philosophers: philosophy provides no worldly good, no non-cognitive benefit, and is of limited value. Those of us who have committed the double sin of being a Christian and a philosopher risk further marginalization, often viewed with suspicion by the church as well. Like Socrates and his uneasy relationship with Athens, Christian philosophers can be seen by the faithful as unwanted “gadflies” that ask annoying questions in Sunday school and instigate doubt in the minds of young believers.

As we navigate an increasingly pragmatic university setting and the suspicious gaze of the church, it is easy to feel—like a severed hand—a bit homeless. But before you pass the hemlock, I plead my case: the church needs philosophers and philosophers need the church.

Why the Church Needs Philosophers

I offer three reasons why the church needs philosophers. First, opposing perspectives to our faith, what we might call defeater beliefs, rear themselves in every day and age. Christian philosophers are well suited to identify, dissect, and rebut the defeater beliefs that set themselves up against Christianity. Granted, every age has its own unique set of defeater beliefs for Christianity. In the fourth century, a defeater belief for the pre-converted Augustine was the idea of an immaterial (divine) substance. (It took the so-called Platonist books to open Augustine’s eyes to the reality of an unseen world of forms and substances.) All these centuries later, that debate seems largely irrelevant. But we face philosophical challenges of a different sort.

Now, in Western culture, prevalent defeater beliefs include the idea that God is a moral monster, that science has disproved God, that evil makes God’s existence unlikely, and that there are many paths to God. Christian philosophers are uniquely qualified to address the logic and philosophical underpinnings of such claims, as well as the structure of arguments erected around such defeater beliefs. Given the rampant anti-intellectualism of our day, the reality is that all too often the layperson is no longer equipped to grapple with the arguments and evidence mounted against Christianity by her adversaries. Neither are the pastors in the pulpit, understandably, given all the directions they are pulled. The solution is not avoidance. Rather it is a disciplined discipleship program that helps the average person in the pew to think carefully about these challenges to orthodox faith—and Christian philosophers can help.

Second, Christian philosophers can lead the way in spiritual formation and discipleship by highlighting the key role of the mind in loving God and man. As a culture, we are no longer guided by right thinking. We have shifted from being attentive to our feelings to being driven by them. But we are, as Aristotle puts it, rational animals, and in this entertainment-driven culture—with many empty selves mindlessly groping from one sensual experience to another—we betray our God-given identity. When Jesus stated that the greatest commandment is to love God with all one’s heart, soul, and mind (Matt. 22:37) he was in effect saying, “Love me with all of your being. Love me in all the ways I have created you.” Never—in Jesus’ mind or in Scripture—is there a splitting of head and heart; they are always meant to go together. Similarly, the apostle Paul puts the mind front and center in the process of spiritual formation when he urges believers to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:2). Christian philosophers can help the church understand how to think well, and in thinking well, to live well, under the banner of Christ.

Finally, Christian philosophers play a vital role in the contribution to shalom—human flourishing—of those both within the church and in the broader culture. This last reason might sound odd—how can teaching one to think well really make the world a better place? Isn’t it the engineer who builds bridges, the minister who feeds the poor, the politician who institutes programs to lift the downtrodden, and the lawyer who convicts the sex trafficker who make the world better? Yes! But, the engineer, the minister, the politician, and the lawyer all do so in virtue of their beliefs—their views on human nature, moral obligation, personal responsibility, and vocation—philosophical doctrines, one and all. Justified true belief—knowledge—about God, the world, and self is the beginning of wisdom, and provides the rails for faithful kingdom service in a fallen world. Let us Christian philosophers help the church to awaken her curiosity, strengthen her conviction, inspire her creativity, and bring clarity to her calling to be salt and light to the world.

Philosophers Need the Church

The church needs philosophers. But we Christian philosophers need the church too. We need to be reminded daily that the Western canon of intellectual history is not our “real food.” To paraphrase Jesus, “Man does not live on Descartes and Kant alone, but on the word of God.” We need to be reminded of the Great Commission. Remind us that Jesus, and not a solution to the problem of universals, is the world’s greatest need. Push us to live for Christ and experience his grace; remind us that our life in Christ is more satisfying, more exhilarating than getting a book published, a journal article accepted, or even an important idea coherently articulated. We need to be daily pulled down from the heights of the Areopagus, where philosophical problems lurch around every corner and crag, and be bothered by the mundane problems of relating with one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. We need good biblical exposition and sound theology to remind us of the limits of our discipline and that reason provides us with a tool, but not the only tool, as we wrestle with ideas and their implications. And we need the prayers and encouragement of our fellow believers in Christ. Our temptation is to go it alone; to be disconnected from the broader body of Christ. Lead us to Christ; keep us from intellectual snobbery; remind us of our need for each other.

With the recent passing of Dallas Willard, a Christian philosopher par excellence who for more than 40 years faithfully served the university, the church, and the world, it might seem that my entreaty is unnecessary. But if history teaches us anything, it is that we are fickle. We are too easily tossed to and fro by the winds of popular culture, base appetites, and short memories. We need to take the long view, and now, because of the influence of prominent Christian philosophers such as Dallas Willard, Alvin Plantinga, and William Lane Craig it is a good time to remind the church of the usefulness, indeed the necessity, of philosophy in service to Christ.


How Churches Can Care for Their Pastor’s Children

A young pastor recently asked for my advice over lunch. His church plant was maturing, and he was looking down the road. His own children are ages 6, 4, and 1. Knowing the problems that pastors’ kids can have, he wisely desired to cast a vision of care for his children.

church-sleepy-kids-szdToo many children of pastors are casualties in the spiritual battle. After seeing the inner workings of the church, many do not want anything to do with the Lord or his people. As a teenager, I almost walked away from my faith because of the hypocrisy and disunity I saw in my church.

But in my conversation with this pastor, I was momentarily speechless as I realized how little I had thought about this important question. Why? Because the church that I had shepherded for 25 years had done an excellent job caring for my own children. Today they are 22, 20, 18, and 16, and have fond memories of our relationships there.

What had my own church done that so few churches do well? What can churches learn?

Word to the Congregation

These children running around among us are precious to God. One day they will not be 6, 4, and 1. They will be 26, 24, and 21. In the meantime, they are watching you and listening to you. And by that observation, they are deciding if the gospel is real. Jesus said, “By this all people (including these children) will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). What will they say about your church when they are adults? How did you help or hurt their walk with Christ?

1. Give grace to the pastor’s children on Sunday. Sunday is a workday for his family unlike any other person’s workday. While her husband is ministering, a wife is parenting alone. The pastor’s kids are often the first ones to arrive at the church building and the last ones to leave. You can minister to his family by giving his children grace, talking with them, and enjoying them. When his children are young, you can also offer to help his wife.

2. If you have a concern, talk to your pastor about behavior that characterizes the children. But do so with an attitude of loving acceptance. As a shepherd of my family, I wanted to know when my children acted up. But I also knew any report I received was from an adult who cared about me, who knew that children will be, well, sinful children. They did not look at my children as PKs (pastor’s kids), but only as kids.

The issues that should concern us are not individual actions but behaviors that characterize a child. The phrase “managing his household well” (1 Tim. 3:4) refers to the father, not the children. It doesn’t mean a pastor and his children are perfect. It does mean he handles true problems well.

3. Be generous in your praise. Respect is especially important as the children grow older. A pastor’s children will soon figure out that their family doesn’t drive the newest car or take the fanciest vacation. But if others verbally express respect for the pastors, the children’s view of their parents will rise. Men especially who express respect to a pastor’s son can make a substantial difference.

4. Limit church criticism and complaint to private conversations among adults. Every group of people will have problems. Issues will need to be aired (see Acts 6). But know that young people are watching how the adults are handling problems. As a teenager, I was keenly aware of the conflicts and hypocrisy in my church. Make sure you keep those comments among adults. Take any issues privately to the leadership. Don’t make sniping complaints to young people or in the hearing of young people.

5. Be brave and rebuke the critics. Unfortunately, not everyone in the congregation will follow this suggestion. When grumbling and faultfinding spill over in front of you, speak up. Tell “Nitpicking Nora” not to talk in front of the children but speak directly with those in charge. Remind her that these are just children. The souls of these little ones are precious and need to be guarded. A united elder team can be especially helpful in speaking to any who engages in unwarranted faultfinding.

6. Give your pastors room to deal with their children’s hearts. Older children will go through some spiritual ups and downs. How will you think about those bumps? With care and affection? Or self-righteous judgment? Your pastor’s children are like all of us. They are in a process of becoming like Jesus. You can embitter them with sharp comments. Or you can love and accept them even as they grow into adulthood. Pray for them regularly by name as they make this transition.

7. Give your pastors margin to minister to their families. Children need their father. But many leaders will be tempted to neglect their families to meet the unending needs of the church. Carping and demanding church members will make that temptation even greater. Even as a church member, you can encourage your pastors to care for their families. Are they taking their days off? Are their vacations uninterrupted? Don’t demand that they minister to your crisis at the expense of their own family.

Influence Well

By God’s grace, my children have no bitterness from my 25 years of pastoring. They know their church wasn’t perfect, but they look with admiration and affection on these aunts and uncles in the faith.

Church member, some day the young children in your church will be adults. They will be spiritual soldiers or spiritual casualties. And yes, you will have an influence on that outcome. They are watching you and listening to you. Use that influence well.

Sunday family

Scargoyle Attacks the Family

My dear Moldwhistle,

I received your letter of acceptance, and I am pleased to know that you will be joining my team in service to Our Father Below. I have heard from your last supervisor that you are a devious fellow who would value the chance to work for a master tempter. With all due modesty, I believe I can give you that opportunity.

First, I must clear up a misunderstanding. When I invited you to join our attack upon the family, you mentioned the vulnerability of the familial institution to gay marriage, pornography, and other popular inventions of our Father. Well, Moldwhistle, any devil can mount a successful attack using pornography. Our division works through a much more sophisticated—subtle, if you will—form of sabotage. In fact, we use methods so understated that the targets have no idea they are under our influence.

Sunday familyOur research has identified Sunday morning as the most successful time to attack the family. Church is a dangerous place. While we can’t keep all families from church, we can offset the detrimental effects of corporate worship by fostering conflict and self-righteousness among family members.

Perhaps you will see what I mean if I describe a recent Sunday sabotage carried out by Malwick, one of your new colleagues. Last Sunday, Malwick launched his attack with a tried-and-true sock hunt. It got the morning off to a deliciously terrible start. The wife of the target family asked the husband to put socks and shoes on their male offspring. Malwick simply stole one sock from each pair. After just five minutes of pawing through a drawer of mismatched socks, the husband lost his temper with the child and cursed at the wife.

The wife in question, offended that her husband would blame her for his inability to do a simple thing like put socks on a toddler, responded with passive aggression (one of Our Father’s chief delights) by changing clothes three times. Her husband hates to be late to church. Rather than apologize for his outburst, he waited in the van while the wife packed the diaper bag, kenneled the dog, and rounded up the children.

The tension in the car continued to rise as Malwick (with help from our engineering department) turned each stoplight red. When the children started crying, their father turned up the preacher on the radio. The wife glared at her husband as she exited the van but forced a smile for the deacon who opened the door for them.

The attack had been so successful to this point that Malwick thought he could relax and enjoy the fruits of his work. That, my vile friend, is a rookie mistake. Malwick hates the grating sound of all those voices singing praise to our Enemy, as do we all, but this was no excuse to let the family out of his clutches.

Unfortunately, the church attended by this couple has a weekly time of confession. Confession of sin causes our campaigns to implode like nothing else can. For years, Our Father has used the sinfulness of these humans to accuse and condemn them, but for some reason, this tactic backfires when a person confesses his sin.

When the family exited the Enemy’s house, the tension was gone. Husband and wife held hands. The children still fussed, but neither parent grew impatient. What had begun as a successful campaign against family harmony ended with forgiveness and grace—a total failure.

You see, if our target families are properly handled, they will never recognize that Sunday morning annoyances are opportunities to extend grace to one another and to seek it for themselves. Grace, as you know, is the hallmark of our Enemy. It undoes our very best work. We must seek to keep our targets out of its way at all costs.

This is where I am hoping that you, as the newest member of our team, will focus your efforts. I will look forward to your ideas at our next debrief and strategy meeting.

Your humble instructor,


How to Create a Culture of Evangelism

I was at High Pointe Baptist Church in Austin, Texas. The pastor, Juan, had asked me to do a seminar on developing a culture of evangelism. I talked and people asked questions. Then someone asked an elephant-in-the-room type of question: “Many Vietnamese are moving into the community around our church; what is the church going to do to reach out to them?”

evangelization picOn the one hand, this was a wonderful question. A member recognized that she had the privilege and responsibility to reach out with the gospel, and she saw an opportunity to do it. On the other hand, the way the question was phrased seemed to imply that reaching out was the responsibility of the church, not the person who noticed the opportunity.

But in a culture of evangelism the work is grassroots, not top-down. In a culture of evangelism, people understand that the main task of the church is to be the church; they understand that church, just being biblical church, is a witness in and of itself. The church supports and prays for outreach and evangelistic opportunities, but the church’s role is not primarily to run evangelistic programs. The members are sent out from the church to do evangelism, the church does not do evangelism.

I know this point may seem a bit picky, but it’s really important. If you don’t get this point right, you can subvert the church. We want church to be church, and members to be seeker friendly, not the other way around.

Here’s how I responded to the question at High Pointe: “It’s really not the best thing for ‘the church’ to set up programs for Vietnamese outreach, but rather for you to think how you can reach out. So I would recommend you learn something about the Vietnamese culture, maybe by learning some greetings in Vietnamese, trying their food, and learning about the struggles they face living in the majority culture. Reach out and invite the friends you make to come with you to your homes, a small-group Bible study, or church. Then, perhaps, some of you should even think of moving into the Vietnamese community with the purpose of commending the gospel among that community.”

In return I saw from the faces in the room many blank stares and great relief on the face of Pastor Juan, who was grateful that I had not just singlehandedly set up an outreach program for him to run.

That’s a sketch of a culture of evangelism at work. I know it’s a bit radical—and I didn’t even suggest they enroll their kids in the local school with the Vietnamese kids.

What Is a Culture of Evangelism?

Most church leaders understand intuitively what I mean by a culture of evangelism. They, too, long for their churches to be loving communities committed to sharing the gospel as part of an ongoing way of life, not the occasional evangelistic raid. But how do we get there?

Slay the programs and program thinking.

Programs are the leeches that suck the life out of evangelism. When you take a cold, hard look at programs, things just don’t add up. Consider that when people younger than 21 (when most people come to faith) were asked how they came to be born again, only 1 percent said it was through TV or other media, while a whopping 43 percent said they came to faith through a friend or family member. Just think of the cost comparison between a cup of coffee and TV programming. Moms lead more people to Jesus than do programs.

Oddly, it seems evangelistic programs do other things better than evangelism: they produce community among Christians who take part in them, they encourage believers to take a stand for Christ, and they can enable churches to break into new places of ministry. Those are good things, but they don’t do much for evangelism. Still, we seem to have an insatiable hunger for programs to accomplish evangelism. Why? Programs are like sugar—tasty, even addictive. However, it takes away a desire for more healthy food. Though it provides a quick burst of energy, over time it makes you flabby, and a steady diet will kill you.

Make sure you exhibit the gospel in all you do in your church or fellowship. Use what’s there!

Have you ever thought of how many biblical instructions God has built into the fabric of the church that, if done correctly, proclaim the gospel?

In pursuing a healthy culture of evangelism, we don’t remake the church for evangelism. Instead, we allow the things that God has already built into the church to proclaim the gospel. Jesus did not forget the gospel when he built the church.

For instance, baptism pictures the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. It shows how his death is our death and his life our life. The Lord’s Supper proclaims the death of Christ until he returns and prompts us to confess our sins and experience forgiveness anew. When we pray, we pray the truths of God. We sing the great things God has done for us through the gospel. We give financially to advance the gospel message. The preaching of the Word brings the gospel.

In fact, the preaching of the Word of God forms the church. And, once formed, the church embraces the task of making disciples, sent out to preach the gospel to form new churches. This cycle has continued since Jesus ascended into heaven and will continue until he returns.

Teach and train your congregation to know and love the gospel message and live out the implications.

Do you know the message through and through? Do you understand its exclusive claims? Are you willing to take a stand in a world that hates exclusivity? If everyone knows this outline—God, man, Christ, response—and the Scripture that goes with it, the culture of evangelism is well on its way.


I mean it. Make sure you pray at every gathering for those who don’t know God. I love the attitude in this quote attributed to Charles H. Spurgeon: “Lord, save the elect, and elect some more!” We don’t know whom God is calling to himself.

I prayed for my sister, Linda, for 20 years, and I almost gave up. But God, in his mercy, drew her to himself. This example gives me hope that other family members and friends whom I’ve prayed for over many years might still come to faith.

Pray about your responsibility in evangelism. I pray regularly, “Lord, don’t let a year go by where I am not directly involved in seeing someone come to you in faith.” God has been faithful to that prayer. If God should grant me more years on earth, when I get to heaven I may see 50 or 60 people with whom I was instrumental in seeing come to faith. What a joy that would be!

Help your congregation see evangelism as a discipline.

Spiritual disciplines, such as prayer, Bible study, and gathering as a church community, are means of grace in our lives. Christians who learn these practices early in their walk with Christ grow in their faith. God uses spiritual disciplines for our spiritual health. We grow when we practice them. Our Christian lives become sloppy when we don’t.

But have you ever thought of evangelism as a spiritual discipline?

Don Whitney has written an excellent book about spiritual disciplines. Here’s what he says on evangelism as a discipline:

Evangelism is a natural overflow of the Christian life. We should all be able to talk about what the Lord has done for us and what he means to us. But evangelism is also a discipline in that we must discipline ourselves to get into the context of evangelism, that is, we must not just wait for witnessing opportunities to happen.

Jesus said in Matthew 5:16, “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” To “let” your light shine before others means more than simply “Don’t do anything to keep your light from shining.” Think of his exhortation as, “Let there be the light of good works shining in your life, let there be the evidence of God-honoring change radiating from you. Let it begin! Make room for it.”

Later Whitney says, “Unless we discipline ourselves for evangelism, it is very easy to excuse ourselves from ever sharing the gospel with anyone.” Whitney believes that the point of disciplining ourselves for evangelism is to plan for it—for Christians to actually put it into their schedule.

As a leader practice evangelism yourself.

If it is important that the members be “on game,” it is doubly important for the elders and pastors to lead by teaching and modeling evangelism. Then lead by celebrating those who share their faith.

John, who pastors another church in our city, regularly starts a fellowship time by asking for stories from those who had opportunities to speak about Jesus that week. After they share, he invites someone to pray for them.

This practice of celebrating evangelistic efforts is simple and doesn’t take much time, but it’s hugely important in developing a culture of evangelism. There is nothing so discouraging as feeling that a church is more interested in manning the nursery than sharing the faith. And when someone does come to faith, there is great rejoicing knowing that the culture of evangelism is bearing fruit.

Editors’ Note: This article is adapted from Mack Stiles’s forthcoming book Evangelism: How the Whole Church Speaks of Jesus (Crossway, 2014).


Dear Donald Miller

You don’t know me, but I’ve been a fan of your book Blue Like Jazz since I read it a few years ago. It draws from a worldview perspective I do not share, but taken on its own terms, it’s a work of art. I mean that.

I don’t have the exact quote, but Emerson said somewhere that great writers hold up a mirror to the world around them and say, “Here you are.” Blue Like Jazz holds up this mirror for the Gen X segment of 1980s and 90s evangelicalism—my own peer group. We grew up with one foot in the world of seeker-sensitive worship services and another foot in the world of MTV, shopping malls, and sitcom laugh tracks. We eventually discovered how much the first world borrowed from the second to keep us coming back. This realization in turn led us to be skeptical toward the whole Christian program, as if Jesus were just one more product. Many of us therefore left the faith, while those of us who remained insisted on something more real, more authentic, from our Christian spirituality. Often, this search led us outside the boundaries of conventional churches.


All that to say, reading your book was like walking up to a painting that captures the spirit of the age, only this painting captured my own. Thank you.

From that shared starting point, my life and spirituality traveled down a road—a way out of the inauthenticity—that’s very different from yours. And here is where I have wanted to strike up a conversation with you ever since reading the book. Yes, that means pushing back a bit, but perhaps you can do the same with me.

Your recent blog post, “I Don’t Worship God by Singing. I Connect With Him Elsewhere.,” reminded me of all this background. In addition to saying you “don’t connect with God by singing,” you also say “I don’t learn much about God hearing a sermon” since “a traditional lecture is not for everybody.” And you admit that you don’t attend church often since “church is all around us.”

The worldview and spirituality here resembles what I found in Blue Like Jazz. But now we’re not talking about a piece of art. We’re talking about how a Christian chooses to live. And, as I said, the path I’ve taken from those early days of angst and displacement, neither at home in the world nor in the American evangelical church, has turned in a very different direction. Instead of moving away from the traditional forms of institutional Christianity, I’ve moved toward them. My way out was deeper in.

I’m now an elder in a church with hour-long sermons, several long prayers, lots of singing, membership classes and interviews and meetings. We talk about repentance, practice church discipline, and use phrases like “submitting to the elders.” In fact, Don, it gets worse. I’ve written about these things. I’ve advocated for them. I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid and then filled a tray of Dixie cups to hand out.

No, we must not mistake these structures for authentic Christian living and love. But I do believe they are both the food that gives life to the body, as well as the skeleton that holds the organs and muscles in place. And I believe they are biblical, by which I mean prescriptive for all Christians in all times and places, albeit with circumstantial adjustments.

Spiritual life comes by hearing, seeing, and submitting, typically in that order. We hear God’s Word preached, sung, prayed, and counseled. We see it lived out in the lives of fellow Christians and leaders. And we submit ourselves to the Word and these fellow sinners, with all their faults and eccentricities, in a local congregation. As my own pastor has put it, we admit that we are not the world expert on ourselves, but need one another and his Word in order to see ourselves clearly and to follow Christ. Life in the midst of Word-centered, accountability-giving fellowship, he has said, is like throwing paint on the invisible man. Wow! I didn’t know I looked like that.

Pick just one word out of the Bible—say, patience. I will not know how wonderfully patient God is, and how impatient I am, until I close my mouth and listen to a fellow believer open the Bible and say, “God is patient.” And then ask, “How patient were you this week with your wife and kids?” And finally tell me, “Consider God’s patience for you in Christ!”

Even then, this word patient will remain a little abstract. So on Sunday morning I look across the pew at Tom, who I know is being treated unfairly at work. But there he is, belting out at the top of his lungs, “When through fiery trials, thy pathway shall lie, my grace all sufficient, shall be thy supply.” The next day I ask Tom how he’s doing, and he tells me how he’s praying for his colleagues and inviting them to dinner. That’s what Jesus’ patience looks like: Tom waiting on the Lord—forgiving, praying, and singing with joy.

I need Tom, and I need every other member. I need the honorable parts of the body and the dishonorable parts. I can’t say to the hand or foot, “I don’t need you.” I need all of them, the weak and strong, the winsome and irksome. And we all need the Word—in sermon, song, and prayer—guiding us. So we gather weekly to listen. Then we scatter to look, love, and help each other live.

I’m glad you connect with God in your work, as you wrote. Your comment reminded me to be more prayerful in my work. But shouldn’t connecting with God in work be the “output”? Don’t we need the “input” of Word-centered fellowship, so that we truly “connect” with him and not subtly spiritualized regurgitations of the world’s influence on us?

Speaking of connection, the main thing that struck me about your article were the words connect and intimacy. They occur over and over, and seem to be the measure and goal of your spirituality. And how life-giving both are!

But if we’re brainstorming on a whiteboard, we need to jot down a few more words to get the full biblical picture, words like submission, obedience, love, and worship. Jesus says that anyone who loves him will obey his teaching (John 14:23). He says that claiming to love God but failing to love our brothers makes us liars (1 John 4:20). He says the world will know we are Christians if we lay down our lives for other Christians just like Jesus laid down his life for us (John 13:34-45).

And here’s where the rubber meets the road: I don’t know how we can say we love and belong to the church without loving and belonging to a church. Or saying we want to connect with God, but we won’t listen to God’s Word for only 45 minutes out of all the minutes in a week. Ultimately, it’s like claiming we’re righteous in Christ, but not bothering to “put on” that righteousness with how we live.

Let me say it again: Our love and unity with the church should manifest itself in a church. Our listening to God means listening to his Word—spoken and sung.

Bottom line, Don, I’ve always appreciated much about your diagnosis of the contemporary evangelical church. But I don’t understand your prescription. Since you’re obviously a thoughtful person, I hope you will receive my challenge as a sign of respect, which I mean it to be.

Best regards to you.


P.S. Just saw your reply to a number of critics, posted around the same time as my letter. Again, some diagnoses I agree with, like, churches over-programatize. But you keep saying no one’s church looks like the church in Acts?! Many churches I know do. People gather to hear the teaching of the apostles. And they scatter to enjoy fellowship and hospitality and care for one another’s needs. They baptize as a way of declaring who belongs to “their number.” And they exercise discipline when a professor lives falsely (okay, here I’m borrowing from the epistles, unless you count Peter’s responses to Ananias, Sephira, or Simon as discipline).

In other words, Don, the main thing I want to highlight in response to both of your posts is the difference between what you call “community” and what the Bible calls the “church.” Jesus actually gave authority to those local assemblies called churches (Matt. 16:13-20; 18:15-20). The assembly is not just a fellowship, but an accountability fellowship. It’s not just a group of believers at the park; it preaches the gospel and possesses the keys of the kingdom for binding and loosing through the ordinances. It declares who does and does not belong to the kingdom. It exercises oversight. And exercising such affirmation and oversight meaningfully means gathering regularly and getting involved in one another’s lives.

Your idea of community, to my ears, honestly, sounds more American and Romantic (as in the -ism of the 19th century) than biblical. All authority remains with the individual to pick and choose, come and go, owing some of the obligations of love, perhaps, but always on one’s own terms, happy to stay as long as the experience “completes me” and my sense of self.

Last thought, friend: I do think you’re overplaying the “people have different learning styles” card. You’ve read Hebrews. Talk about tough trudging, right? But it’s a sermon! And you know the original hearers didn’t have as much education as most Americans. But for some reason the Holy Spirit thought it was adequate for everyone.

Best to you.

How to Do Church—and Why

Figuring out how to think and live in regard to the church is a task neither small nor optional. The latest installment in Crossway’s Foundations of Evangelical Theology series, Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church by Gregg Allison is a substantial contribution to any conversation about God’s blood-bought bride.

I corresponded with Allison, professor of Christian theology at Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, about the book, his journey, why this subject matters for church leaders, and more.


What experiences, classes, books, and the like have shaped you and your ecclesiology?

I was on Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ) staff for 18 years at the University of Notre Dame and also in Italy, the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, and other assignments, so I have significant parachurch experience. I also have broad experience in various types of churches: Evangelical Free, Swiss Evangelical Baptist, Conservative Baptist, and now, while at Southern Seminary, several Southern Baptist churches. Throughout the years I’ve served in various leadership capacities in these churches: co-pastor, chairman of the board of deacons, elder, and the like. All of these churches and leadership opportunities have shaped me and my ecclesiology.

For the past four years I’ve been deeply involved in Sojourn Community Church, where I’ve served as a community group leader, a coach for several community groups, and a neighborhood pastor working with about a dozen such groups to help them be missionally oriented so as to reach portions of East Louisville with the gospel. Along with 35 other men, I’m part of Sojourn’s council of elders serving four campuses in Louisville. This responsibility involves shepherding, teaching, church discipline, mercy ministry, praying, and much more. Most recently, I became a theological strategist for the Sojourn Church Planting Network, so I do the theological assessment of potential church planters, serve as an external elder for a couple of new church plants, work on theological education, and help pastors in the network think and live theologically. What is thrilling for me personally is daily putting my ecclesiology into practice.

How did writing your massive Historical Theology prepare you for and strengthen your writing of Sojourners and Strangers?

While working on Historical Theology for 13 years I developed my writing voice and the discipline of writing. So when it came to doing Sojourners and Strangers, I was well prepared for what it takes to design, initiate, develop, edit, and conclude a large project. Historical Theology also gave me much background material with which to work as I tackled ecclesiological issues like the nature of the church, church government, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the ministries of the church. I’m deeply indebted to the evangelical theological tradition to which I’m an heir, and this legacy has definitely shaped my ecclesiology.

Why did you select the title Sojourners and Strangers? What about this title does the contemporary church need to hear?

The title comes from Peter’s description of the church:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles [strangers] to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. (1 Pet. 2:9-12)

This description is a beautiful and captivating vision of what the church as a gospel-focused, Christ-centered, missional community is called to be during its earthly pilgrimage on this earth.

Did your mind change on a particular issue while writing this? If so, what and why?

I wouldn’t say my mind changed so much as now I have emphases concerning several topics I’d previously overlooked. This is probably because much of evangelical theology overlooks certain discussions when doing ecclesiology. So readers will see a lengthy prolegomena in my book, discussing issues such as the sufficiency of Scripture, the continuity and discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments, the prescriptive and descriptive witness of Scripture, and the church in its relation to the kingdom of God. Such an approach is almost unprecedented in ecclesiology books, but it’s much needed before one can actually construct an adequate doctrine of the church.

Additionally, I have a robust notion of church discipline, arguing it functions as a sign or harbinger of the divine eschatological judgment. I hope this concept in particular will be helpful to churches as they grasp the importance of exercising discipline. Further, I offer biblical and theological warrant for multisite churches, urge churches to baptize new Christians very soon after their conversion, and embrace the memorial view of the Lord’s Supper while also advocating for the celebration of Christ’s spiritual presence in this ordinance—which I urge should be administered frequently (weekly). Readers will also find practical wisdom about how to incorporate these doctrines into their churches, as I share from my involvement in different churches.

In what ways is it important for pastors to have a carefully developed biblical ecclesiology?

Much of what’s available to help pastors today—articles, blogs, videos, and the like—is pragmatically driven advice about how to do church. That being the case, pastors go from one new approach to preaching and worship, or discipleship and pastoral care, to another. In my view, before pastors should worry about how to do church they must grasp the identity of a church—its nature and characteristics. With that biblical and theological vision of the church’s identity firmly established, they can then engage their cities with the gospel, preach the whole counsel of God, foster missionality as a characteristic of the church and not just a program, disciple and discipline members, and all the rest. Sojourners and Strangers, therefore, begins with several chapters about what the church is and is to be, and it concludes with a conversation about the ministries of the church. That design was not accidental but intentional, as it fleshes out the answer to your question.

When a Church Loves a Woman

Saying goodbye is never easy, especially when it’s a farewell to someone or something you love dearly. In my case, it was a whole church. For nearly two years, a body of 300 people, including two dedicated pastors and their wives, had loved me when I was broken, lonely, and not at all sure where God was leading me. 

When I started attending, the church was only a couple of years old. It was growing rapidly, and I knew the reasons why after my first visit. The pastor was heartfelt and engaging with the good news about Jesus Christ; the congregation was warm and welcoming; the music was lively and full of the Lord’s presence. But the thing I noticed most could not be seen. This church didn’t have its own building or even the comforts you take for granted in many other churches. But this place had a heart I could feel from the moment I walked through the door.

The heart of the church comes through in its mission: “we are passionate about coming together to meet a Jesus who is radically committed to loving broken people, and who then equips us to share in the privilege of mending our broken world with him.”

A privilege? Growing up in a different kind of church, I never thought of worshiping or serving as a privilege. But here, that’s exactly what it was—a responsibility they took very seriously.

The Privilege of Truth

No one comes into church perfect and polished, deserving of God’s love. Indeed, I was far from it. I was in a sinful relationship, my work was my idol, and I frequently put myself and my comforts above others.

The church saw my discretions, and neither did they ignore them or punish me for them. Instead, they loved me well until I saw the error of my ways. They invited me in. They gave me resources. They spoke truth when I needed to hear it. They were there to help pick up the pieces when I had to deal with the consequences of my actions.

Essentially, they loved me in ways the world doesn’t know how to love. Love can be costly when we put ourselves on the line to speak truth to one another. But love does the right thing even if it may offend. I celebrate the power of God in loving me through the body of Christ, with a love full of grace when I needed it most. 

The Privilege of Pursuit

I was also granted the privilege of being pursued to serve other women in the church. I saw in action what Jen Wilkin commended in her recent article “The Complementarian Woman: Permitted or Pursued.” She writes, “The challenge for any pastor would be to consider whether he is crafting a church culture that permits women to serve or one that pursues women to serve. Because a culture of permission will not ensure complementarity functions as it should.”

In a healthy church, women feel comfortable stepping up to fill the inevitable gaps. By being asked to start a women’s ministry group and being encouraged to start a small group for women in transition, I was, in turn, able to pursue the women of the church in meaningful ways.

The Privilege of Community

As Paul writes, in Romans 12:5, “So in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” This church was a model of this verse in action. From the welcome card that gives the option to have coffee with the pastor, to the annual family retreat, community was built into the church’s DNA. 

It emanated from the staff—from the pastors and their wives. They made an effort to get to know everyone in the church personally, even as it grew. Meals and events at their homes are among my fondest memories of church community.

Letting Go

While I certainly didn’t want to leave the best church I had ever known, the Lord had a different path for me. I struggled with the thought of finding a new church home. After all, experiencing something so wonderful is both a blessing and also a curse when it’s hard to replace.

My church family kept loving me well as I prepared for the next phase of my life. While my small group family gathered around me in prayer at my farewell gathering, one of the pastors shared a piece of advice I will not soon forget: “Don’t look for a church that’s exactly like this one because you won’t find it. Instead, bring this church wherever you go.”

He knew something I need to remember if I will ever be content with a new church experience. Instead of looking for what the church could offer me, I need to look for a church I could serve in the ways of love I learned through my last church. 

While I will miss a lot of things—the coffee breaks during service to connect with friends, the personal communion messages delivered by the pastors to each person in the congregation, my small group and fellowship with women I had grown to love—I will forever cherish this experience and seek to bring that gift to others wherever I’m going next.

Thank you, All Souls Community Church in Rockland County, New York, for loving me as Jesus commands. May many more souls like mine—broken and in need of God’s grace—find your doorstep so that they may experience love in Christ beyond anything they can imagine.

Wendell Berry and the Beauty of Membership

Once each quarter I teach a new members class for people interested in joining our church. It’s become one of my favorite responsibilities as a pastor. I’m a believer in church membership, no question. But I’ll be honest: every time I teach the class I cringe a bit along with my audience at some of the things we discuss.

Concepts like authority, exclusivity, and discipline just don’t sound right on a pre-reflective, aesthetic level. They evoke a yuck factor ingrained in us by the often unnoticed influence of our Western culture—literature, film, music, pop psychology—and its celebration of the unfettered individual. (Chapter 1 of Jonathan Leeman’s The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love is helpful for tracing out examples of this influence.)

I know that some of these ideas have always been distasteful to fallen humans. Self-denial is nauseating to the self-centered. That said, I don’t think we’re guilty of ear-tickling if we look for counterbalancing images, images that make sensible the beauty that’s in a community defined by the goals of membership. And to that end I’ve really come to appreciate the world created in the novels of Wendell Berry.

Retraining Our Tastes

Berry is not the sort of author to whom you turn for help crafting your church’s statement of faith. His works aren’t the right genre, and he isn’t the right author. But novels are especially well-suited for retraining our aesthetic tastes, for putting flesh on ideas that otherwise may remain sterile and abstract.

Set in an isolated Kentucky farming community called Port William, Berry’s works portray the beauty of a bounded life, a death to the options of Elsewhere, the embrace of a concrete place and its people. It’s no accident that Jayber Crow, my favorite of Berry’s novels, is subtitled The Membership of Port William. Like all common graces, a community fostered by the willing limitation of one’s horizons can turn idolatrous, breeding an insularity Alan Jacobs has recently described as unchristian. And it’s also true that there is a darker side to small town life. Those familiar with the works of William Faulkner will find Port William to be an ideal world by contrast. And yet Berry’s novels are especially useful for illustrating the liberating submission that’s always involved with membership.

In Jayber Crow, Berry’s characters show what it is to belong to a community, by which I mean more than the welcome and affirmation typically communicated by the word today. To belong to a community is to be at its disposal, to have given over all you have to be used for whatever your community needs. It is to be implicated substantively, not just sympathetically, in the ups and downs of a place and its people. It is a submission of yourself—your identity, your interests, your ambitions—to the needs of those to whom you’re bound.

The book’s heroes reject the notion that you make your own identity rather than receive it. They know and embrace who they are through their connection to things larger than themselves: their community, the land, the march of history, the mysterious purposes of God. They find joy, peace, and freedom in accepting their subsidiary status.

Barriers to Belonging

One of the barriers to this sort of belonging, of course, is the selfish ambition that dwells deep in all of us. Rather than submitting ourselves to community, ambition drives us to subordinate all things to our personal gratification or our relentless effort to build a name for ourselves. Berry’s villains in Jayber Crow depict this impulse vividly. They’re not the sort of villains who steal, kill, and destroy. They’re characters like Cecilia Overhold, a woman who marries into Port William from the upper crust of the town next door and can never forgive “the failure of the entire population of Port William to live up to [her] expectations” (209). She’s described as a woman who “thought that whatever she already had was no good, by virtue of the fact that she already had it” (209); she lives as if “there is always a better place for a person to live, better work to do, a better spouse to wed, better friends to have” (210). In the midst of a vibrant, gracious, and happy community she is discontented, angry, and lonely.

Troy Chatham is perhaps even more to the point. His character emerges in detail as a young farmer who rejects the old ways, never imagining that “the reference point or measure of what he did or said might not be himself,” never belonging to the place but convinced the farm exists “to serve and enlarge him” (182). Throughout the story, Chatham leverages the present for the future in his all-consuming desire to “be somebody,” using and abusing all the resources he could claim in service to his exalted self-image. He is a man who utterly fails to recognize his limits or his dependence on what is outside of and bigger than himself.

Jayber Crow is a nostalgic book, and—for all its beauty—a sad one. The world it describes is for the most part a lost world. It was held together by traditions no longer valued and an isolation no longer possible. Which is to say much of its staying power rested on personal preference for its traditions and to some extent an ignorance of alternatives.

Pale Reflection

Bound in time, Berry’s world offers but a pale reflection of the local church ideal, a community where members’ submission to each other is rooted in the message of the gospel and the power of God’s Spirit. Against his redeemed community, Jesus has promised us, even the gates of hell are no threat.

But Berry’s stories bring to life truths at the heart of the community we’re aiming for when we emphasize church membership. A thriving, covenant-shaped local church requires precisely the sort of self-abnegation Berry celebrates and is opposed by the same self-exaltation he portrays in all its ugliness.

Too often we try on new churches like we try on new clothes and for much the same reason. We’re looking for style and fit, for what meets our needs and makes the appropriate statement about who we are. We put our churches in service of our desire to be somebody, and our commitment doesn’t outlast the better options of Elsewhere. But this posture—beside its offense to the cross—leads to self-absorption, restlessness, and isolation.

By contrast, there is freedom in coming off the market. There is sweet rest in belonging to one people, for better or worse, and there is the opportunity for displaying costly, Christlike love. We’re called to die to our narrow interests and to what we might hope to enjoy or become on our own. But we’re called to a truer life in our identification with Christ and his body on earth. On the terms of 1 Corinthians 12, we must embrace our status as a mere hand, ear, or foot, helpless apart from the other members and happy so long as Christ is exalted and the body is thriving. This is boundedness, for sure, but it’s liberating, and it’s beautiful.

Editors’ Note: This article originally appeared at 9Marks.

Why I Pray Publicly for Other Churches

Every Sunday morning, I lead the congregation of Third Avenue Baptist Church in a “pastoral prayer.” I pray for many things during that time—congregational events, members who are suffering, evangelistic opportunities, various officials in government, missions opportunities, even events in the nation’s headlines. The part of the prayer that elicits the most comment, however—both positive and out of sheer confusion—is when I pray for another evangelical church or two meeting in the city of Louisville.

Each week, I choose one or two churches and pray for their services that day. I pray for the church to be attentive to the Word of God. I pray for the pastor to speak boldly and accurately from the Bible. I pray for people to be convicted of their sin, for Christians to be encouraged in the faith, and for non-Christians to be converted. I also thank the Lord that we live in a city where we are not the only church in which the gospel is proclaimed.

Believe it or not, the practice of praying for other churches is so rare in many Christians’ experience that many don’t know exactly how to process it. More than once during my pastorate, a visitor to Third Avenue has walked up to me with a concerned look to express surprise that such-and-such church is having troubles. After all, why would the pastor of one church pray for another church if there weren’t serious problems afoot there?!

Spirit of Competition

There are many benefits to doing this sort of thing week after week. For one thing, it helps me in the work of crucifying my own spirit of competition. It’s so easy for pastors to subtly (if not less than subtly) begin to think of other churches as “the competition” instead of as fellow proclaimers of the gospel in their city. I want to go on record, in the most public forum I have, as praying for the success and faithfulness of those churches. We are not in this to make a name for ourselves; we are all in it to make a name for our King.

Not only so, but I think those prayers do the same work of crucifying a spirit of competition in the members of Third Avenue. Pastors are not alone in struggling with feeling competitive with other churches. Members do too, and it’s good for them to see their leaders working publicly to counteract that tendency so that it doesn’t take root in the life of the church.

Praying for other churches also communicates an important truth about the various churches in a city: We are all on the same team. We all have the same mission, and it’s to proclaim the gospel of Jesus and make disciples of him. The last thing we should want as pastors is to communicate a provincial, myopic spirit among our members that recognizes good only in our church, and cannot see what God is doing more broadly. We serve a massive God, and an important way to show that truth to our people and teach them to rejoice in it is to teach them to care about God’s work in the lives of other churches.

I have found that praying for other churches also helps me to cultivate friendships with their pastors. It reminds me, week after week, that there are others engaged in this same work that so consumes me each day, and it challenges me to strain against any tendency I might have to isolate myself in the work.

In our church covenant at Third Avenue, one of the promises we make to one another as members is that we will not “omit the great duty of prayer both for ourselves and for others.” At its heart, that is a promise that we’ll remember not only God’s great delight in answering prayer and his unstoppable power to do so, but also the great truth that he is glorifying his Son through the work of churches all over our cities and the world.

Editors’ note: This article originally appeared in the May-June 2013 issue of the 9Marks Journal.

Piper on Regrets and Retirement

Shortly after John Piper concluded his 33-year pastorate at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, FakeJohnPiper tweeted his week one retirement to-do list: “Catch up on ‘Little House on the Prairie’ reruns. Arc Leviticus. See if Savers is hiring. Write three books.”

During The Gospel Coalition 2013 National Conference earlier this week, I asked the real John Piper what’s left for week two of retirement. But we also discussed what he won’t miss about being a pastor. He explained what young Christians who look up to him for his writing and conference speaking need to know about the day-to-day pastoral care that shaped this broader influence. He also shared why he regrets so much about his time at Bethlehem.

Our interview also ranged beyond his time at Bethlehem to discuss next steps. One of Piper’s role models, Jonathan Edwards, died before he finished his History of the Work of Redemption. What would Piper want to finish writing before he dies? And does he agree with his many critics that the Reformed resurgence would die with him if Jesus called him home tomorrow?

We closed the interview by discussing why he’s more encouraged or discouraged today compared to when he started at Bethlehem, whether we should blame the divided and ineffective church for worrisome cultural trends, and what one fruit of the Spirit he prays God would give us Christians in this era. Watch, stream, or download audio of the full 30-minute interview to hear his surprising responses.

Tomorrow in Minneapolis, Bethlehem Baptist Church plans to celebrate and give thanks for John Piper during a 6 p.m. service at Grace Church Eden Prairie.

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Piper on Regrets and Retirement